2009 is a lunar year. The film Moon was released earlier this month, to much critical success, the 40th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing approaches in July, and fittingly, there is a new book that examines the history of Apollo 11, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, by Craig Nelson. In a wonderful PR move, the publisher, Viking, will release the book on July 13th, just days before the anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11- Just enough time to read it and know exactly what’s going on for that party that you’ll be out, when someone will mention Apollo 11.
The thing is- this book really isn’t about Apollo 11. The front of the book states this, it’s a fairly comprehensive look at the mission, but this book accomplishes much more than simply looking at this extraordinary story in vivid detail: it looks at the entire sequence of events that lead up to that moment when Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. This is an incredibly important thing, I believe, because not a whole lot of people know about anything beyond those words, and that some old guy walked around on our nearest satellite. Armstrong and that other guy (Buzz Aldrin, who deserves just as much, if not more credit to the space program than Armstrong) are mere footnotes in this story, just two people out of the 400,000 people who helped to bring them to that point.
In order to fully understand the first lunar landing, one must go back to the start. While there are other books out there that cover the space program in far more detail – University of Nebraska’s Outward Odyssey series, for example – this book does the remarkable job of doing it in a single volume, getting all of the important details that went into NASA, but also pulling in the smaller peripheral details that gives the book a bit more interest. Nelson has done an incredible job of balancing the technical and human sides of the story, allowing neither to really overwhelm the reader, and is able to deliver a fantastic history. The story of Apollo is scattered throughout the book, at all levels of the production, design, training and preparations that went into the mission, starting all the way back to the Second World War, with the first military rockets developed by the Nazis and by Werner Von Braun, who would later turn himself over to the United States forces. From there, he leads a team that worked with the United States military until 1958, when NASA was commissioned by President Eisenhower. We meet the Mercury 7 astronauts, and look quickly to the missions that brought us into space, and the missions that would lead us to the moon, which were just as important as the actual landing itself.
This is where the book shows its true colors. Rather than being just examining the history of American space flight, there is a genuine look to how this all fits together in American history, as the Cold War raged onwards. The entire space race was a byproduct of the arms race that very nearly brought about our self-destruction at various points in the 1960s. Interwoven throughout this story is the delicate balance that the United States and Soviet Union rested upon, and it is quite clear that while the plaque that rests on the Tranquility Base landing strut proclaims that we came in peace for all of mankind, this is a particularly ironic statement, considering that much of the space program had roots in military technology.
For all of my bluster about this book being most than a reiteration of the Apollo mission reports, this book is quite possibly one of the most engaging and one of the better reads about the Apollo 11 mission. Details are numerous, and I get the impression that this was a rather hard task to accomplish, something that was largely glossed over in my own education. This was an enormously difficult and complicated program to pull off, and after this read, I am rather astonished that we were able to pull it off. This was a task that engaged hundreds of thousands of people, with enormous yields that go unappreciated by the general public, with amazing advances in communications, medical and engineering technologies that we use every day.
Recently, I’ve heard people say that all we got back from the moon was a sack of rocks (and offered up a free bag to taxpayers). While I’m astonished at the lack of vision that seems to be permeating the public when it comes to the space program – the book cites that 27% of people in my generation find it unlikely that we actually landed on the moon – I will remind you that the benefits are there, and tangible. Something that Nelson mentions early on in the book has stuck with me, where he notes that not a single dollar was spent on the moon – it was all spent on Earth. Hundreds of thousands of people were employed by NASA and the aerospace industries that helped to make it a reality. That number undoubtedly increases when all is said and done. The scientific findings alone are also astonishing, and have provided new insights to the birth of our planet and solar system. Even beyond that, there are numerous implications for utilizing the moon as a source of energy, from either the mining of Helium-3 from the surface or from Solar energy (where, as Mr. Nelson notes, a lack of cloud cover and a fairly constant view of the sun will come in handy), which could potentially help with the coming energy problems that we’re going to face in the coming decades.
Apollo was more than just bringing back rocks. It pushed the boundaries of what was possible, helped to unite the world for one extraordinary, singular moment in our history when we most needed it, and showed us what was possible. This book does a fantastic job of explaining it all in an engaging manner, but like Apollo 11, it is all about the stepping stones and wonderful couple of hours that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spend on our nearest neighbor, and essentially ends with that mission. Sadly, after Apollo 17, the lunar missions ended, and NASA changed gears to the Shuttle program and low orbit missions to save costs. Nelson reserves the end of the book for a quick look at the past couple of years, and brings out his soap box to explain exactly why we need to return to space, for the fuel crisis, to beat the inevitable landings of China and India, but because it is in our nature to explore. We will return to the lunar surface someday. I can only hope that it is sooner, rather than later, because this is what the country and the world needs right now, something far more important than all of the technical and scientific accomplishments that came with Apollo: Hope.